Green Your School

Eight ways to help your district’s students and parents be better environmental citizens.

Credit: Yann Kebbi

With 180 days on the average school calendar, there’s no question that kids spend a lot of time romping around on school grounds. To make a big impact on their daily health and local environment, why not start there? Action steps can be as simple as giving your kid’s classroom a few potted plants, which will filter the air they breathe. And by finding ways to introduce sustainability projects to common spaces such as the playground or lunchroom, you can broaden your efforts further.

Teachers often have too much on their desks already to also tackle environmental advocacy at school. Parents who decide to take initiative can make change happen quickly, and what’s more, they often have their own niche skills to volunteer. Are you a master gardener? Help the school set up a vegetable patch. Home composter or recycling enthusiast? Teach a workshop on how kids can reduce their lunchbox waste. Better yet, involve your kids. When students are the ones creating a culture of sustainability at school, environmental actions tend to stick.

Ditch the car—or at least the mostly empty car.

Walking or biking to school is best for the planet. Create a “walk pool” or a walking school bus by gathering a group of students and a few parent chaperones who set off on foot together each morning. “It’s a great way to begin and end the day outside, where you’re talking to your kids and meeting your kids’ friends and your neighbors,” says Pamela Worth, owner of the outdoor preschool program Tiny Treks. In Chicago, she organized a walk pool for her four kids and their neighbors. “We bundled up and walked in anything above 10 degrees.”

If you need to drive, aim to carpool with neighbors—with every car your school community removes from the road, you’ll cut down on the collective carbon footprint.

Stop idling.

If the drop-off or pickup lines are at a standstill (or if you’re parked, waiting for the final bell), turn off the ignition—idling emits carbon dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and particulates from the tailpipe. The gases not only contribute to climate change and air pollution but also can be harmful to the lungs of children, especially those with asthma.

Some schools have serious idling problems. This is what spawned the national Turn It Off campaign, which advocates for turning off your engine if you’ll be waiting more than 10 seconds in line. You can download posters from the campaign’s website and pass them out to drivers as they pull up to school, or encourage your school to place them in student take-home folders. Your kids can also get involved. Help them launch an awareness campaign in which they tell their classmates about the pollutants that spew from idling cars, and the classmates spread the word to their parents. “Make it relatable,” says Becky Bronstein, outreach coordinator for the Seattle-based Washington Green Schools, an organization that offers schools throughout the state an environmental certification process. Almost every kid will know someone with asthma. Idling engines are also a palpable issue, says Bronstein. “Kids can tell when they’re waiting outside that the air quality of that area changes as a hundred cars crawl through the car line.”

Treat lunch as part of the learning experience.

Students learn best with a tummy full of healthy foods. When schools prioritize health and social well-being in tandem with academic goals, students thrive, says Angela McKee-Brown, director of education at the Edible Schoolyard Project. The organization, founded by chef Alice Waters, has found that learning about food in a school garden or kitchen classroom helps students develop agency and a healthy relationship with food. Kids learn about the origins of their fruits, veggies, and more, and how what they eat impacts the environment as well as their own bodies, says McKee-Brown. The hands-on experience of growing and preparing food as a class, she adds, also leads to a more cooperative school culture and higher attendance. During evening cooking classes at school, McKee-Brown says, “children delight in guiding their families through the steps of preparing a meal, and the gathering deepens connections at the school.”

Even without a formal program, you can start your own lunchtime learning lab. The Chef Ann Foundation offers a tool kit for parents looking to advocate for school food change. It starts with joining your children in the cafeteria for a day so you can get a better sense of what foods they’re offered, what they’re choosing, how long they have to eat, and which changes you’d like to see. The Center for Ecoliteracy puts out a guide designed for advocates interested in teaching 6th through 12th graders about the impact of food on climate change, and its playful Starting With Soil app helps younger kids dig deep into where their food comes from.

Champion safe cleaning and sanitizing products.

All parents know that schools are a hotbed for germs and the infections that can come with them. Many districts try to tackle the issue by asking kids to clean their desks at the end of the day. But some chemicals commonly found in sanitizing products have been linked to asthma, hormone disruption, and neurological harm.

In fact, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulates certain disinfecting wipes as pesticide products. Some governments have heeded the health concerns surrounding chemicals in cleaning and sanitizing products by making it illegal for kids to use these wipes at school, as is the case under California’s Healthy Schools Act. (The law also bars schools from spraying pesticides without warning parents.)

Take initiative by educating your school on the risks of disinfecting wipes and present some alternatives: The University of California (at San Francisco and Berkeley) and the nonprofit Informed Green Solution’s Green Cleaning, Sanitizing, and Disinfecting: A Toolkit for Early Care and Education report is a good place to start, and MadeSafe certifies nontoxic consumer products. The EPA, too, awards a “Safer Choice” label to products that have been evaluated for carcinogenicity, reproductive and developmental toxicity, and various environmental impacts.

Host sustainable school fund-raisers.

You can help your school community become greener—and make some green—through a community rummage sale, where families sell unwanted items they’d otherwise toss. Ask parents to clean out basements and attics for gems, with proceeds supporting the school.

Another common school fund-raiser is the spirit-wear sale. If your school sells T-shirts or other gear with the school logo, help its organizers choose a company that makes clothing out of sustainable fabrics.

Do your district’s high school students get together for a car wash fund-raiser? Unfortunately, these events can cause pollution if wash water containing oil, grease, and metals flows into a storm drain. The conservation department that oversees Massachusetts’s Wachusett Reservoir Watershed (which supplies the greater Boston area) offers tips for minimizing the environmental impact of this type of event. It also suggests that schools partner with a local commercial car wash, where wash water drains to local wastewater treatment facilities that remove pollutants. You can ask the business to provide discounted passes that you can sell at a premium to raise funds; some car wash businesses might be willing to donate part of the profits from the event, and others may already have their own fund-raising programs in place.

Offer a recycling tutorial.

Most of us toss stuff in the wrong recycling bins only because we don’t know any better. Help teachers or student green team leaders show their classmates how to properly sort trash, recycling, and compost. If the school doesn’t already have them, ask administrators if you could work with them to hang signs that clearly show what to recycle and what to compost.

And make sure your school recycles printer cartridges. An estimated 375 million of them (more than half of the cartridges purchased each year) are either incinerated or tossed in landfills, where their slow-to-decompose plastics can linger in the environment for a millennium.

Producing less trash means the school can empty its garbage dumpster less often, or even downsize the dumpster and save a lot of money that way. “We’ve seen schools on average save about $1,000 a year because of better waste sorting,” Bronstein says.

Be tough on tire-crumb playgrounds.

If they’re lucky, your kids will get to work their wiggles out running around on outdoor playgrounds. But there’s a red flag to be aware of: Many school play surfaces are now made of ground-up old tires, known as crumb rubber. Unfortunately, the substance has not been adequately studied for children’s safety. Some districts have taken precautions: In 2009, the Los Angeles Unified School District banned turf fields containing infill from tire-crumb rubber.

“Communities throughout the country are saying no to crumb rubber in the face of uncertainty about its health effects and mounting concerns expressed by families and athletes,” says Sarah Evans, who studies environmental health exposures at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. Crumb rubber has been banned in Montgomery County, Maryland; Edmonds, Washington; and Hartford, Connecticut, and many school districts have voted against installing crumb rubber fields. “Although turf manufacturers argue that crumb rubber is ‘proven’ safe, local officials, families, and athletic clubs must be made aware of an ongoing federal study that highlights the lack of data to support this claim,” Evans says. Until scientists confirm results of that study, the Mount Sinai Children’s Environmental Health Center recommends a moratorium on the installation of recycled crumb playing surfaces.

Even if your school playground does contain the little black crumbs, there are ways to limit your kids’ exposure. Students should avoid eating or drinking on crumb rubber surfaces and should wash hands after any recess sessions spent there, especially during hot weather, when the chemicals really volatilize and can be breathed in, says Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist in the Health & Food program at NRDC.

Advocate for nontoxic pest and weed control.

Pesticides are especially hazardous to children, who breathe air closer to the ground where these chemicals are applied. Kids are also less resilient to these toxic chemicals than adults, and their developing brains are more susceptible to neurological problems and learning disabilities caused by exposure.

To limit these risks, you can guide your school to address bug and vermin issues with a program of integrated pest management, or IPM. This method focuses on preventing infestations before they start and using pesticides only as a last resort. It’s a low-cost, environmentally friendly solution that has been proved in studies to slash pest-removal costs by one-third—and pest complaints by 90 percent. The basics of IPM include old-school tactics—like repairing ripped window screens, sealing bathroom cracks with silicone caulk, and fixing leaky pipes—but they can be tailored to particular pests, too. Consult this guide to learn more.

On college campuses, a movement is brewing to ditch chemical weed killers, such as the glyphosate-based products Roundup and Ranger, which carry a risk of cancer and may be linked to other adverse health effects on reproduction, child development, and internal organs. In 2017, two student athletes at the University of California, Berkeley launched a campaign to ban harmful toxins from the grounds of the University of California system after discovering that herbicides were being sprayed around their school’s volleyball courts. Their campaign, Herbicide-Free Cal, has since grown into Herbicide-Free Campus, a platform that provides resources to anyone interested in helping to advocate for chemical-free, mechanical practices for weed management on campus.

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